Elina: The Saga of the Holomek Family


Only five Czech Roma out of every hundred is thought to have survived the Second World War — the vast majority of Romani people now living in the Czech lands are descended from Slovak Roma; their ancestors encouraged or compelled to settle here under the communist regime. It is because there are so few original Czech Romanies alive today that the newly published memoirs of two otherwise ordinary women are so extraordinary.

Elina Machalkova, who turns eighty, next year, is very much alive.

As a Roma pensioner born and raised in what is today the Czech Republic, that fact alone makes her story special. Nearly all Czech-born Roma who lived through internment in the Czech-run labour camps of Hodonin and Lety later perished in the so-called "Gypsy family camp" at Auschwitz-Birkenau, were killed in pogroms, or died from abuse, disease or hunger.

But apart from surviving, Elina Machalkova's history is exceptional on another level; her grandfather, Pavel Holomek, founded the largest Roma settlement in Moravia. He was also among the first Roma to settle permanently in a Czech town, and send his children to school. His son Tomas would go on to become the first Czech Roma to earn a law degree; his grandson Milos, Elina's brother, would earn four academic titles.

Elina Machalkova,  foto: Jana Sustova
But Elina's grandfather didn't live to see the Holomek name become famous among the Roma as the "family of teachers"; he was killed in a concentration camp — as were two of his brothers, a sister, and between them, 14 children, including two of Elina's uncles. The rest of her family, like all Romani people, she says, lived in constant fear throughout the war — at the mercy of German and Czech officials alike — and often went into hiding.

"Listen: we didn't take even a single step that we didn't have to take; we didn't speak a word that was forbidden because also among the Czechs were traitors, Judases. And there were plenty of them. Just look at the fate of our Mr Hasler. A 'Judas' turned him in. At night in a village pub —a Czech pub— Czech people were singing his song. The next day the Gestapo came for him and took him to Mauthausen, and he never sang again."

A singer in her own right, Elina was recalling the fate of the celebrated cabaret star and songwriter Karel Hasler, who set satirical, anti-German lyrics to the popular melody "Ta nase pisncika ceska", or "that little Czech song of ours" — and was killed for it.

Elina Machalkova,  foto: Jana Sustova
"People throw away your forks, we have nothing to eat anyway", go the revised lyrics, "they took everything away from us, took it all away from us, and left us just a Protectorate."

Elina knows something about going hungry. Barely into her teens, she spent the early years of the war rising each day at four a.m. to go work in a factory. Her only wages, food coupons, were frequently withheld, and she survived on handouts from sympathetic non-Roma villagers.

In August 1944, at the age of 18, she fled the factory and went into hiding. Elina had been summoned by the Gestapo along with her mother to report for a "treatment" which they knew, thanks to a town official, meant forced sterilization. She hid in a cold, dark cellar for 6 months straight.

"I had to hide myself to avoid sterilization. My family told people I had been sent to Germany. I saw almost no one for six months. It was horrible. I lived in constant fear. But that is how I was saved from sterilization. And that's why I wanted a lot of children; and I had four. "

K. Kozakova,  J. Horvathova  (director of the Museum of Romani Culture) and E. Machalkova,  foto: Jana Sustova
Much to her father's initial dismay, Elina did not earn a university degree — she raised a family instead, seeing it as a sacred duty, given what the Nazis had intended for her, and for her race. It was her brother Milos, who had four academic titles to his name, who intended to write the Holomek story. But Milos died of cancer in his forties before he managed to do so.

Elina Machalkova took up the task in her late seventies.

Her newly released autobiography, "Elina: The Saga of the Holomek Family", makes up half of a new book published by the Museum of Romani Culture, called "Memoirs of Roma women"; the other, "A Journey Through life in a Gypsy Wagon", is by Karolina Kozakova, another Czech Roma who survived the war: she, because wealthy relatives managed to pay off Nazi sympathizers and buy her family's freedom.

Their autobiographies are said to be the first ever written by Czech Romani women.

To learn more about the Museum of Romani Culture, please go to www.rommuz.cz.